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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
An acclaimed novelist works his magic again, this time in a sparkling collection of newspaper columns.
By WILLIAM McKEEN
Published February 11, 2007
There's a lot of good advice on writing out there. Too bad more people don't take it.
George Orwell said, "Never use a long word when a short word will do." Tell that to your elected officials. "Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences," Mark Twain said. Then there's the adage that writing improves in direct proportion to the number of words left out.
At least Pete Dexter has been taking that advice. His new collection, Paper Trails, is a master class in tight, effective writing. Every piece was written on deadline, yet the book reads as if Dexter labored over each word for days until he got it right.
This is mostly a collection of newspaper pieces, from the days when Dexter was a metro columnist for the Philadelphia News and the Sacramento Bee. Local columns are supposed to be about local stuff, and if you don't give a damn about Philly or Sacramento (and let's face it - who really does?), why should you care about a collection like this?
It's a good question, especially when you consider that newspaper journalism is supposed to be about that who-what-when-where-why stuff. If Dexter was a good local columnist before he became a big-time novelist (and he was), then these stories should interest only the poor slobs living in those cities.
You might think. But in a coy editor's note, Dexter says he put together the anthology from a bunch of ragtag clippings and couldn't give us the dates - or in some cases, the places - of publication. So the stories must live or die out of context.
They live. This is a testament that great storytelling is specific yet still portable. We're not always sure where these stories took place. All we care about is the art Dexter manages to assemble within a tight, 500-word structure.
There's no fat in the writing. The stories are alternately bleak and hilarious, and sometimes a bit of both.
I liked the story of the ne'er-do-well brothers who decide they want to make their fortunes buying and selling motels. They set their bloodshot eyes on an $8-million beauty but end up settling for a somewhat run-down $4-million place.
Dexter asks Brother Bob how he can sleep at night, since he just borrowed $4-million from the bank. " 'The way I look at it,' he said, 'if you owe the bank four-thousand dollars and you can't pay that, you've got a problem. But if you owe the bank four-million and you can't pay them, then they've got the problem.' He said once I learned that, I'd be ready to buy a motel of my own."
It's not that Dexter threw the pieces together without any editing. He has been married multiple times, so he made uniform all references to his various wives, calling them "Mrs. Dexter." Some of the best pieces are about family life, pets and the continuing war between men and women.
Like any great reporter, Dexter can make an epic out of someone else's tragedy. When a friend's house burns to the ground, destroying all of his possessions and killing his three dogs, Dexter goes to comfort him.
" 'That dog,' he said, meaning the one he'd had the longest, 'she'd come to bed with me every night, check my hair for fleas, lick my eyes and sleep on my head. Who's going to check my hair for fleas?' Did I mention he'd been drinking?"
Dexter is best known for his brilliant novels, including The Paperboy and Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award.
Paper Trails allows the rest of us to share the stories that, until now, have been the property of lucky readers in Philadelphia and Sacramento.
William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.
Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage